Thursday, February 18, 2010

One last post about Dominica

Kara Robinson, Dominica Expedition

Now that I have returned from Dominica, I wanted just to give some more background to the project I was involved with and also share some of my experiences with the students.

Previously IFAW's Floating Classrooms were a one-time fun whale watch for students throughout Dominica; it was an experience that was educational but a quick one and mostly focused on whales - sperm whales that dive for 45 minutes on average! The 2010 Floating Classroom is meant to be more than just a boat trip for the students and teachers that are participating. It is now meant to be a full set of activities that the schools can work on from now until May integrating teaching about the ocean into current curriculum guidelines and lead up the boat trip that will be more of a research cruise than just a whale watch.

Map of the Caribbean, Dominica is in the middle of the West Indies

The hope is that throughout the next couple of months the classes work to learn more about the ocean in their backyard and hopefully through a community service project really become ocean stewards and share the knowledge that they learn with their family, friends and community. As part of the kickoff for this year's program we spent 3 days at the school in Soufriere teaching with the teachers and 2 days at the LaPlaine School.

The village of Soufriere on the Carribean Sea.

It was really interesting getting to know the people of Dominica; whether it was the staff at the Dive Lodge where we were staying, our contacts in the Ministry of Youth Development, the Minister of Education, or the teachers and students at the schools we were working with. The island of Dominica is relatively small (289.5 sq. miles and a population under 75,000) with most of the villages along the coast of the country, however one member of the Dive crew told me that probably about 70% of the people of Dominica have never been in the water, let alone snorkeling, diving, or whale watching - those are more tourist activities. The people who spend the most time in or on the water are the fishermen. It is interesting how many millions of people flock to the Caribbean each year to experience the diverse life that is at their footsteps.

Rosalie Beach on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island (notice the difference in the sea state). This beach is the largest leatherback sea turtle nesting beach in Dominica, just north of the village of LaPlaine.

In my job here at the Aquarium, I work primarily with students in grades K-5. Seeing how and what students learn about the ocean in Dominica was most interesting to me; especially when comparing to what students learn here in Massachusetts. For instance, coral reefs are not really a topic that is covered in the Dominica curriculum when it is literally in their backyard. That being said, we recently worked with a first grade class in Boston that was doing a whole coral reef unit that involved visiting the Aquarium and I wonder if they study North Atlantic rocky shores. Culturally, some of the students had experiences that were unlike any that I had encountered. For instance, at the LaPlaine Elementary School on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island almost every student we met had eaten sea turtle before, most likely leatherback. This was pretty shocking to me and it will be interesting going forward if these students can realize the implications of killing a female sea turtle that is coming to the shore to lay her eggs.

Some very excited girls from the Jones Beaupierre School in LaPlaine.
Photo credit: Jake Levenson

The students really left a mark on me. At the Soufriere Primary school on the Caribbean side there was a girl who asked so many questions and at one point told me she wants to be like us when she grows up. She is also the same girl who was one of the only students I met who had been in the ocean before. She has a "Pirates of the Caribbean" mask that she uses (Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3 were filmed on the island) to explore the ocean. Hopefully her interest in the ocean will become a love and it would be fantastic if she continues to pursue studying of the ocean.

Another student that really stuck out was a boy named Christopher at the Jones Beaupierre Primary School in LaPlaine on the Atlantic Ocean. As we were telling all the students about the boat trip that they will be going on in May, he got so excited. When I told them that they would pretend to be scientists, he was literally jumping with joy. Hopefully his excitement will continue during the next couple of months!

Me snorkeling. I have now seen tons of fish, sea turtles, and sperm whales (under permit) while snorkeling - an amazing experience!! Photo credit: Jake Levenson

This trip to Dominica allowed me to explore things I hadn't before; learn about another culture (we were lucky enough to attend the Kick Off to Carnival Parade), learn another country's school system, see sperm whales for the first time, spend time with fantastic people, and snorkel more than I ever have before (I now have learned at least 10 new fish that we have in the Giant Ocean Tank!). This trip will definitely be an unforgettable one and I look forward to sharing this experience with the rest of the Education Department and bringing it to the rest of the work that I do at the Aquarium.

- Kara

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Last Question: What if we blended in?

Sunnye Dreyfus, South Africa Expedition

Cederberg, World Heritage Site

Blazing sun, broken arm, raging allergies, brightly colored clothing, a bad attitude and inappropriate footwear. I was so not prepared for the Cederberg and the cape leopards she was hiding.

I was dreaming of the ocean surrounded by at least 20 species of shark and schools of juvenile pufferfish. Thankfully, there is no law that regulates the scientific feasibility of dream content. Instead, I was being jostled around cape leopard habitat. No, not leopard seal or leopard shark habitat, but the 4-legged, furry land kind.

Rather than kelp forests, I was shepherded through bone-jarring rocks experienced via foot or 4-wheel drive. I had to hold my arm in the air every time we hit a huge bump in the road (which was all the time for 2 hours). I was sneezing in sets of 7 as the dust & pollen of the Cederberg found a cozy nook in my nasal passages.

The formation to the left of my head is called the "tea kettle" by some.
I think it looks like a turtle.

I was in a car full of strangers and absolutely no idea what I was doing or where I was going. Just looking out the window made me thirsty and I was a fish out of water in my city slicker duds. Self-loathing crept up on me as I thought of all the ocean I was missing because of this stupid cast on my arm. What do cape leopards have to do with anything right now?

Honestly, Sunnye. Really? How very uneducator-like of you.

A beautiful day in the Cederberg...says the leopard.

Looking for cape leopards is really quite fantastic because it gives you a lot of time to reflect and meditate. I was sitting (awkwardly) on a rock (there were many) wondering (as always) how I got there. I was struck by the quiet peacefulness and unwavering patience of those around me. There were six of us with binoculars, telemetry and GPS gear, cameras, camping chairs, coolers, two vehicles, water, backpacks, food, hushed whispers and a ration of hope.
All of this...for a girl.

I never saw her, but I know she saw me. She saw all of us. How could she not?

There she you see her? I didn't think so...
Like so many animals, she is a master of a natural subtlety we call camouflage: the art of blending in. I am sure she was quietly licking her paws, flicking her tail like some spastic metronome, or navigating the rocks like quicksilver. Whatever and wherever, we were not privy.

Photo credit: capestorm, flickr

And humans? Well, we stick out like sore thumbs. We yap, trap, laugh, graph, huff, puff, develop, envelop, dig, rig, mine, whine, drive, dive, fly, cry, screech, bleach, travel, unravel. If it's out there, we do it...and often loudly, quickly and on an enormous scale. And the rest of the animal world goes on and does their best to stay out of our way.

Cape leopards, like sharks, are still mysteries to us and so it is understandably unnerving to hear about our interactions with them. Some farmers, like some fishermen, hunt, exterminate, trap, and/or dispose of these apex predators and send a message in the process:
Stop eating my sheep.
Stop getting caught in my nets.
And most of all, stop threatening me.

So, what if we just blended in?
How would this world be different?
Do you ever try to blend in? How do you do it?
After being a sore thumb for so long, how do we blend in with all of the other digits?
And are we interested in doing so?

We are the shortest finger after all.

Dear South Africa, Thanks for having me. Sincerely, Sunnye

To learn more about cape leopards, check out the Cape Leopard Trust.
To see all of Sunnye's posts from South Africa, click here.